João Alvares Fagundes should probably be a Portuguese national hero. The Lima Valley Giant from Viana do Castelo played a significant role in securing the enduring popularity of bacalhau (cod fish) in Portugal.
At the beginning of the 16th century, during the Age of Discoveries, he wound up in the Canadian Atlantic and charted the waters around Newfoundland (Terras Novas) and Labrador. The king at the time (1521) granted him the sole rights to fish there but sadly he died before making the return journey. Nevertheless, his countrymen continued to bring cod, salted for preservation, to Portugal and there are now over 1000 ways of serving it.
As a ship owner, merchant and town councillor, Fagundes was an influential man and his contributions to his home town and Portugal’s gastronomy have been recognised with a statue. You can find him gazing out to sea from the bank of the River Lima, in a green space behind the Gil Eannes Hospital ship.
With the help of José Augusto Azevedo from CENTER and Luís Serra from the Câmara Municipal (City Hall), I tried to understand what Viana do Castelo was like almost 500 years ago.
16th century Viana do Castelo
Viana has been an important port and ship-building town for centuries. Back in Fagundes’ day, the Age of Discoveries was in full swing and ships from Viana sailed all over the world bringing back goods and glory. It’s not difficult to imagine the bustle and excitement of daring departures and returning vessels laden with exotic treasures.
The Lima Valley Giants Route takes us through the medieval streets of the town to see buildings and monuments that, although they may have changed over the years, existed during Fagundes’ lifetime.
We start in Rua Grande, the street where Fagundes was born, before exploring the Old Hospital which gave shelter and support for pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela in the 15th century and was later used as a primitive hospital. Nowadays, it provides a cosy setting for the tourist information office as well as an intimate space for concerts held in the balconied courtyard.
In Rua de São Pedro, Casa dos Costa Barros sports an magnificent 16th century Manueline window. Named after King Manuel I, this ornate architectural style is a Portuguese twist on late Gothic architecture incorporating naval or oceanic elements in extravagant celebration of the profitable discoveries made overseas. You’ll find examples of Manueline architecture all over Portugal.
Churches and monasteries in Viana do Castelo
We continue on foot to Praça Frei Gonçalo Velho where the Capela das Almas sits, looking slightly out of place and lonely. The original building was the parish church from 1258 to 1483 so it’s very likely that Fagundes came here as a child.
When superseded by the newly built cathedral at the end of the 15th century, the little church was left in ruins and only rebuilt in the 18th century. It’s now a museum but was closed during my visit.
Faded glory of Mosteiro de São Bento
The nearby Mosteiro de São Bento was a convent for nuns from the 16th century until 1890. It looks nothing special from the outside but the interior is worth tracking down the key holder for (best arranged through the Tourist Information office).
Walking past the washing hanging from what remains of the cloisters, I caught glimpses of the modern apartment blocks that now overlook the monastery. Inside, the sacristy wardrobe is overflowing with priestly robes but in sore need of repair and restoration. None of this rather neglected, lived-in appearance prepared me for the church itself. Although it desperately needs a massive cash injection to restore it to its full glory, it still has the wow factor.
Most of the decorative elements are from the 17th and 18th centuries. Every spare inch of wall is covered with blue and white azulejos, mostly depicting scenes from the life of Christ. The golden altar, though darkened with age, is still a masterpiece of gilded woodcarving and dotted with the faces of fat cherubs. The ceiling is richly painted with biblical scenes and it’s still possible to make out the representations of individual months painted on the back of the benches that line the nave.
A Nossa Senhora Negra (Our Black Lady) holds her heart in her hand to offer brides-to-be, who bring eggs and donate money in the hope of being blessed with a fertile and happy marriage.
Fully restored Igreja da Misericórdia
To see what a difference restoration can make to such a church, go to the Igreja da Misericórdia in Praça da República (open from 10 am to 12 pm and 3 pm to 5 pm from Monday to Friday, daily between June and September).
Although the original church was built in the early 16th century, it was in ruins by the 18th century and had to be rebuilt. The decoration of the new church was arranged at the same time so the azulejos, altars and paintings were ordered to create a complete work of art. To see the interior in its full glory, head straight to the front of the church and add a donation to the box by the altar to trigger the lights.
The painted tiles on the left of the nave illustrate various spiritual acts of mercy such as consoling the sad and teaching the ignorant while those on the right show physical charities such as clothing the naked or giving food to the hungry.
Once you’ve finished admiring the paintings on the ceiling, take note of the upper balcony where the organs are. It opens onto the adjoining building, a former hospital, enabling patients to attend mass.
Apparently it was Fagundes who, in his capacity as town councillor, petitioned King Manuel I and Queen Leonor to provide a proper hospital for Viana do Castelo to replace the makeshift provisions at the pilgrim hostel.
The medieval tryptich in Viana do Castelo
His petition was successful and resulted in the Mannerist construction that forms one of the Praça da República’s tryptich of 16th century monuments. It served as the city hospital until 1983.
Fagundes would also have witnessed the construction of the council chambers from which he later worked on the upper floor. Downstairs, the few people who knew how to write made a living as escribas (scribes), writing petitions and documents on behalf of the illiterate in accordance with the regulations of the councillors above.
Today, both floors of the Antigos Paços do Concelho (Old Council Chambers) host exhibitions by local artists (open daily from 10 am to 6 pm, 7 pm in summer).
The Renaissance fountain opposite was built in the middle of the 16th century, replacing the one that existed during Fagundes’ lifetime.
In and around Viana do Castelo Cathedral
Next we head to the Romanesque cathedral which replaced the Capela das Almas as the parish church at the end of the 15th century. The sculpted stone around the arched doorway and the circular stained glass window are worth taking some time to appreciate as the interior leaves a lot to be desired. A fire destroyed much of the decorative features and it has since been painted to give the appearance of Gothic frills and pointed arches.
The chapel in the left transept either escaped the blaze or belongs to a brotherhood sufficiently wealthy to restore its pomp and frills. Next to it, there is a plain recess with a statue of Christ of the cross and possibly the mortal remains of João Álvares Fagundes. Although his family coat of arms is on the wall above this small chapel, there is no documentation to prove where he was laid to rest.
Next door to the cathedral you’ll find Casa do João Velho, the home of Fagundes’ father-in-law. Under the wide arch lies the ground floor trading centre that both men used to in their capacity as merchants. The building was later used as the local Custom’s Office.
Viana do Castelo Fortress
Although the tower and defence fortifications were built after Fagundes’ time, they provide an excellent viewpoint from which to imagine the comings and goings of ships and cargo during the Age of Discoveries.
José and I walk along the battlements listening to frogs screeching and seagulls squawking until we reached Torre da Roqueta, the first part of the complex to be built. Puzzled by the holes in the corner and over the walkway below, we conclude that they must have been used to pour hot oil or launch rocks at intruders.
Where to stay in Viana do Castelo
I had a very pleasant stay at Casa do Ameal on the outskirts on town. The main building is a 16th century manor house surrounded by beautiful gardens, a pond and a small farm. Guest accommodation is in the outbuildings and consists of several country-style apartments of varying sizes with kitchenettes and there’s a supermarket practically on the doorstep. Breakfast is served in a separate building next to the pool.
If you want the best views in town, the Pousada at Santa Luzia overlooks the city and coast and can’t be beaten.
Right in the heart of the historical centre, the 16th century Casa Melo Alvim offers beautiful, traditionally decorated accommodation and a piano bar.
If you’d prefer something more modern, yet unique, how about the quirky Hotel Fabrica do Chocolate. Housed in a former chocolate factory, the rooms are decorated in chocolate themes and the restaurant menu is similarly influenced.
Another central, modern option is the boutique Hotel Laranjeira.
Other things to see and do in Viana do Castelo
There are plenty of other reasons to visit Viana do Castelo – see this blog post to find out more.
Or check out the Viana do Castelo municipal website with tourist information
Disclosure: CENTER hosted my stay in the Lima valley while showing me the Lima Valley Giants Route. All opinions, as always, are my own.